There is never a dull moment in this collection of interviews with dancers associated in one way or another with the various companies collectively described as the ‘Ballets Russes’. The book tells their story from the Diaghilev period, through the de Basil, Blum and Denham years, right up to the final days of the Marquis de Cuevas’ company, and concludes with an ‘Afterword’ with John Neumeier. Tamara Karsavina, who died in 1978, is included, by means of an interview with her friend the dancer Rachel Cameron, but it is the later generations, from Alexandra Danilova (born 1903) to Maina Gielgud (born 1945) that are best represented.

The book paints a picture of the Ballets Russes from the inside, and consequently largely from the point of view of Russian expatriates. Author and editor Professor Michael Meylac lived much of his life behind the ‘Iron Curtain’, spending four years in prison at the hands of the KGB, and many of his subjects came from families that fled the Russian Revolution. The book’s geographical scope reflects the extent of the Russian diaspora, and for more than a decade, Meylac interviewed dancers living in Europe, Australia and the Americas. He was only just in time, as sadly most of those to whom he spoke, including the three the ‘Baby Ballerinas’, Tamara Toumanova, Irina Baronova and Tatiana Riabouchinska, have now passed away.

Many experienced dramatic, and sometimes terrible, things: women gave birth on trains or in tents as they fled the Red Army; the dancer Anatoly Joukowsky, aged 15, rode with the White Russians carrying his own rifle; Tatiana Leskova’s parents were on board the British icebreaker that was to be sent to Murmansk to rescue the Tsar’s family. Asked by Meylac about the repressive regime in Russia, Tamara Geva states succinctly, ‘My whole family was killed.’

The book brings out the importance of the former Maryinsky ballerinas who established studios in Paris, particularly Lubov Egorova and Olga Preobrajenska, who nurtured many young Russian dancers and often did not charge them for classes. Ethéry Pagava describes Egorova’s musicality and the way in which she taught dancers to link movements, and Preobrajenska’s inimitable way of demonstrating épaulement. Hélène Sadowska sums it up: ‘It was “très élégant” at Egorova’s; “très authentique” at Preobrajenska’s’, adding that when the latter demonstrated something ‘one immediately wanted to dance it’. The book includes a delightful photograph of Preobrajenska giving class at the Salle Wacker, Paris, in the 1930s.

The many tiny anecdotes bring the people and the world they lived in to life: Queen Mary shows Alicia Markova the steps of the mazurka that she learned from Marie Taglioni; Jean Babilée describes Léonide Massine, aged seventy, breaking a journey by dropping in at La Scala for a forty-five minute barre; Nicholas Polajenko remembers that someone always had to travel with Natasha Krassovska to ensure she caught the correct train. Toumanova, too ill to speak and dying of grangrene, weeps as a nurse holds the telephone to her ear so that she can hear her friend George Zoritch’s voice.

The picture that emerges is of a large, talented, bickering family. There are a range of opinions on what it was like to work with their various choreographers, from Mikhail Fokine to Serge Lifar, on the conduct of their impresarios, and on the qualities of individual dancers. The rivalries were shocking (Nini Theilade describes how somebody, suspected to have been ‘Mama Toumanova’, cut Markova’s Wili costume to shreds), but they also loved and supported each other.

This book, which has a Foreword by Ismene Brown, will be of keen interest to dance historians for its first-hand, highly opinionated, accounts of the way in which Russian ballet was disseminated across the world after the death of Diaghilev. It is also enormously entertaining and thoroughly enjoyable to read: I could not put it down.

Maggie Watson

3rd October 2019

Michael Meylac, translated by Rosanna Kelly (2018)  Behind the Scenes at the Ballets Russes: stories from a silver age  I.B. Tauris

You can buy this book online here